SOUTH WINDSOR, Conn. -- "Hello?"
Silence. "Hello?" More silence.
We called out again, this time louder.
"Hello? Is anyone home?"
But all we heard was the sound of our voices drifting through the cavernous room we had entered. It was less a room than a massive hall that stretched the length of the house, from front door to back, and felt disconcertingly vast and hollow.
That feeling would mark our stay at the Watson House, a three-story mansion built for a local merchant, John Watson, in 1788. Do the math: This imposing, impressively preserved structure, located in South Windsor 's historic district a short walk from the Connecticut River, is nearly 220 years old.
That makes it a fascinating relic, and explains why it is opened for public tours during the local historical society's annual "heritage day." Visiting this place is like being time-warped to an earlier era, when homes were yawningly huge and designed for sprawling families.
But that same architectural grandeur can be a handicap for a bed-and-breakfast. How, after all, do you make a mansion with 21 rooms and 13 fireplaces cozy? That is the challenge for Brandy and Mike Feldmeier, a young couple who turned Watson House into a five-bedroom inn last year.
"I struggle with that all the time," said Brandy, who markets the inn as ideal lodging for people visiting nearby Hartford. "I'm torn between trying to hang lots of tapestries and things like that to make the place softer. But then I think that in 1788 it would not have been like that because that wasn't the Victorian doily era, so that wouldn't be true to the spirit of it."
I respect her commitment to preservation, even though it means the inn has an emptiness to it -- giant rooms, wide doors, gaping fireplaces, tall windows, ceilings that seem to reach to the sky -- that sometimes left us feeling a bit lonely.
But the Feldmeiers, who live on the top floor with their infant daughter, a dog, and four cats, are trying to remedy that.
By their account, the house needed cosmetic help when they bought it. The previous owner had renovated haphazardly, creating a decor that blended the 1980s with the 18th century. So they ditched most of the furnishings and replaced them with pieces that match the mansion's post-Revolutionary War style.
Our spacious, second-floor bedroom, for example, called the Adams Suite, had a reproduction bedroom set whose centerpiece was a gorgeous, king-sized, four-post mahogany bed with 400-thread count bedding. I have always considered the hoopla over thread count silly, but this meltingly soft bed was the most comfortable I have slept in, ever. The intricately carved armoire, old wood floors, and original wallpaper also made the setting feel authentically historic.
Other good things about our room: the remote-controlled gas fireplace, private bathroom with shower, and windows overlooking a field of sheep. Not-so-good things: the scuffed particle board entertainment center (left over from the previous owners), the "wet bar" that turned out to be a motel-like kitchenette (Brandy reports that the tacky Formica counters have since been replaced with granite), and a non working lamp that made reading difficult.
And although the room is called a suite because it has an attached sitting room, there was little in the added space to enjoy. Our sitting room was small, chilly, poorly lighted, nearly bare-walled, and meagerly furnished, so we didn't bother to use it.
This is where I should mention that a month after the Feldmeiers bought the inn, Brandy began to feel a touch nauseated. She thought she was reacting to paint fumes, but she was wrong: The queasiness was morning sickness. Last November, Hayden was born -- she is named after the house's architect, Thomas Hayden -- and Brandy and Mike's lives have been hectic ever since.
Hayden's arrival meant they had to slow down the redecorating and focus their time and expenses on their baby. That's why Watson House remains a work in progress, and why we were willing to forgive its rough spots.
We wished there were tourist brochures to peruse, but maybe that will come with time. We liked the eclectic collection of games (even a PlayStation 2), but wished we had been told the DVD collection is kept by the Feldmeiers and we could have asked to borrow one.
We wouldn't change a thing about breakfast, though. Brandy is the cook, and guests choose from a menu that can include eggs, omelets, quiche, pancakes, sticky buns, fresh fruit, and, our favorite, Belgian waffles made with cinnamon-buttermilk batter. Topped with blueberries and strawberries, they make a perfect meal.
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.